Thinking About Fernando

Reflections on the Hispanic Arrival

Regarding the enormous influx of Hispanics into the United States through Mexico, a few disordered and chaotic thoughts:

To begin with, why does it get so little attention? The flow across the border is huge, 1066 by inadvertence, resembling the movement of the Germanic people into the Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries. We no longer control our borders. As more Mexicans arrive, their growing political influence will ensure that we will be unable to reassert control.

When the migration has finished, the United States will be a very different place. Whether the change will be good or bad can be debated. That it is a watershed in our history cannot. Why so little discussion?

Answer: Political correctness. Unfavorable commentary on immigration is almost unpublishable.

Next, who are these new folk? What are they like?

I can give you my own anecdotal answer. I've lived in Mexico, and watch the Spanish channels on cable to keep my Spanish up. These provide a window on the Hispanic world. To my eye, Hispanics are remarkably like mainstream white Americans. They feel European, not surprising since they are Spanish in origin. Their talk shows and game shows are exactly like ours, the same soft porn and relationships. Their attitudes toward most things are similar to ours. I see no obvious reason why they should have any greater difficulty melding than did the Italians.

Unlike blacks, Hispanics are not angry at the United States. They very much want to be here. You couldn't drag them back across the border with a backhoe and a team of mules. They constantly talk about having come here to find "una vida mejor," a better life. When you've lived under the Guatemalan police, you have no doubts about the superiority of San Diego.

They want to be not just in the US, but a part of it. A standard topic for news features is that some Hispanic has made it in America, and boy are we proud. When a Hispanic singer "crosses over" (i.e. manages to become popular with Anglo audiences) the Spanish channels are no end pleased. Every Spanish-speaking actor who gets a part in a movie in Hollywood is chronicled: Hey, we're getting there. Sammy Sosa was to them evidence that they are becoming part of America.

They clearly think that they have a right to be in this country, regardless of what Anglos want, and vigorously support immigration. It isn't a rational view, and infuriates a lot of Anglos, but they hold it tightly. This is the Promised Land, where the poor and oppressed can have a better life. They have a right to come if they choose.

Don't waste your time arguing with them. You won't win.

Hispanics think politically, know they are gaining political power, and plan to use it-not against Anglos, against whom they have little, but for Hispanics. The election of Hispanic officials is very much noted. There is a political vitality to these people that one does not find in, say, blacks, with whom they see themselves as being in competition. (They don't quite say this. Over and over, though, they point out that in a few years they will be the largest ethnic minority in the nation.)

The Hispanic-black competition may heat up. Already around Washington blacks are angry that Hispanics are taking what blacks regard as their jobs. The Hispanics are going to win this one. People who hire uneducated labor routinely tell me that they prefer Hispanics because they show up on time, don't call in sick or simply not appear, don't have bad attitudes, and work like dogs. Guess who they hire?

Hispanics do not want to be linguistically isolated, do not want to turn the United States into a nation divided by language. The Spanish channels groan under the weight of commercials for instruction in English. In the typical ad, Jose gets turned down for a job or a date with an Anglo lovely because he can't speak English. After going to the school being advertised, he has a job in a bank. They are not enthusiastic about bilingual education. The activists are, but people interviewed in the street invariably say they want their kids to learn English, right now if not sooner.

Spanish, not English, is the endangered language. On talk shows in Spanish, such as "Christina" out of Miami, younger guests often have to ask how to say something in Spanish. A joke in English gets a laugh from the audience. When they drop in English words, which they often do, the accent is usually perfect: English is their primary language, or at least equal to Spanish. Believe it or not, several times I've heard Hispanics arguing for bilingual education so that their kids will learn Spanish, which many are forgetting.

As a police reporter, one of my other guises, I see a lot of Hispanics. Here the picture differs a bit from the view on television. The elder Hispanics are friendly, courteous to the police, and do not engage in serious crime. You can find exceptions, but the foregoing is the rule. They tend to drink hard, however, and account for a high proportion of drunk drivers-and I mean drunk sometimes to the point of bouncing from curb to curb. Friends at detox centers talk of seeing blood-alcohol concentrations that would pickle most people.

More ominous, the kids do not seem to be academically ambitious or inclined to work hard. They drop out of school, don't show much interest while they are still in, and, at least around Washington, join suburban gangs. These are not hardcore gangs like the Latin Kings in Chicago, but they aren't good either. If Hispanics are not going to become at least partly stuck in the lower rungs of society, they had better get over the lack of interest in school. No promises there.

The overall prognosis? For what it's worth, my take is that they'll make it. The road may be rocky at times, but they'll get there. I think. The odd cultural barrier that exists between blacks and whites does not exist between Anglos and Hispanics. They'll move up, fit in, mix. (Leave the latter to young Anglo guys.)

I'd better be right, because they're not leaving.